A Review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger TeachersJanuary 18, 2017
I am writing this on my way to visit Michaela School, as I realised that this would be my last chance to review the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, written by teachers at the school, without having my perceptions shaped by seeing the reality of what they describe.
The book consists of a series of essays about life at the school and their educational philosophy written by a variety of staff members. As you’d expect, if you’ve read any of the furious debate about the school, a lot of what is discussed are educational ideas I am already predisposed to like, in particular, zero tolerance discipline and a pedagogy based around explicit instruction in knowledge. The book would make a handy introduction to anyone interested in those issues, and would be full of ideas for a school leader hoping to implement those ideas.
Where this book differs from previous books about these topics, is in the claim that the results of consistently implementing such ideas are particularly spectacular. Throughout the book the writers indicate that while they believed in these ideas all along, even they were amazed at how well they worked in practice. It would be fair to argue that the credibility of the book depends entirely on whether the school lives up to these claims. The authors claim that their strict discipline has created an incredibly positive culture in the school. While this may, in part, be considered a reaction to those who claim that firm discipline is cruel and will make students miserable, the authors all seem agreed that firm boundaries have not only enabled students to learn more effectively, but has also affected their characters in a positive way. They also claim, and samples of students’ work seem to support this, that the focus on knowledge has enabled greater academic performance in almost every respect, including those skills whose development is often seen as in competition in the classroom with the transmission of knowledge.
Where the book has generated controversy it has been over the picture painted of other schools. As somebody who has worked in many secondary schools, in 4 different local authorities, and visited many more schools, and who knows teachers from all over the country, I see nothing that was not entirely truthful about what is normal in this country’s secondary schools. As ever, in the education debate, speaking the truth will generate more hostility than simply arguing for a controversial position. There has been little response to some of the more contentious parts of the book, like the chapter arguing against the need for qualified teachers.
Although I knew before I began reading that I would be sympathetic to the central ideas of the book, I was surprised how little I disagreed with. The school’s curriculum and pedagogy seem very carefully prescribed, and I expected to find myself disappointed at the lack of teacher autonomy. However, I actually found myself questioning my own assumptions about teachers planning lessons collaboratively. Perhaps my own experiences of this not being a good idea stem entirely from working with teachers with drastically different views of what works in the classroom. Perhaps an agreed approach to pedagogy makes all the difference in this respect. In which case, could it be that all schools should proclaim their philosophy as loudly as Michaela does?
As I said earlier, the credibility of this book will really depend on whether the school lives up to the claims in the book. I’m looking forward to visiting. In the longer term, I doubt many schools’ results will be scrutinised as closely as those of Michaela’s first cohort. One way or another, a lot of people will have to eat their words when those results are published.